December 20, 2005 > KING KONG
by Jeremy Inman
In this current cinematic slump - an era of remakes, sequels and adaptations - one filmmaker repeatedly stands out from the rest as he persistently proves that successful adaptations can not only be done, but done well.
And in his case, done extremely well.
Peter Jackson, a man whose epic method of storytelling brought the Lord of the Rings trilogy to a wider audience than it has likely ever seen before, brings that same proficiency and love for his craft to a more singular and iconic figure for cinema history: the mighty King Kong.
That's right; everyone's favorite 25-foot ape has swung back onto the big screen after 72 years since the original astounded audiences all over America. Jackson's Kong is likely to have the same effect.
With an original run time of about an hour and forty-five minutes, the entire 1933 version of King Kong would fit snugly into Jackson's 3 hour and 7 minute epic, so it's not surprising how much of the original film and even dialogue made it into Jackson's cut of his favorite movie. With almost every pivotal scene reproduced or directly referenced, Jackson's Kong retains the appeal of the original, but he uses the extra 80 minutes to flesh out his characters and develop a relationship between Kong and his lovely captive, Ann Darrow.
Like the original, a group of filmmakers led by finagling director Carl Denham travel to a distant, uncharted land with the discouraging moniker "Skull Island," where time, it seems, has frozen and millions of years of evolution haven't erased the monstrous, prehistoric species living on the island.
Unlike the original, which rushes through any semblance of a story for its main characters, Jackson takes a respectable amount of time to establish the motivations of his leads. The desperate Denham, played by the hugely talented and versatile Jack Black, has run over budget on his most recent film and faces cancellation by the studio. Most of his equipment has been caught in shipping, his funding has all but run dry, his script writer Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) has only written fifteen pages and his lead actress has just dropped out. With only three hours before his ship leaves, Denham is forced to hit the streets in search of his next female star. Here, he discovers struggling vaudeville actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), who is eager for the chance to work in films, particularly one written by Driscoll. With his crew ready, his cast in place, and the studio hot on his heels, Denham rushes his boat to launch, sending the voyagers on their journey toward a fateful meeting with the natives of Skull Island, and their rather large ruler.
When we finally do see Kong, almost an hour into the film, his sheer size and physical presence is awe-inspiring. Andy Serkis, the man who collaborated with Jackson in the Lord of The Rings trilogy by providing the motion capture and voice work for the digital Gollum, spent weeks observing silver back gorillas in their natural habitat and again donned his mo-cap suit to provide Kong with the same fluid, believable movements. While the Kong of the original film maintained the same dopey, wide-eyed facial expression for most of the movie, Jackson's Kong is far more expressive. However, since gorillas rarely express their emotions facially, Kong does most of his acting with his eyes and his body. By providing Kong with lifelike movements and allowing close-ups through the use of computers, Jackson brings out the unique personality of Kong and develops a touching and intricate relationship between him and Ann so that when he meets his inevitable end, it's a truly emotional sequence.
Which segues nicely into another testament to Jackson's proficiency with adaptations: for a three hour movie about a giant ape where everyone knows how it ends, Jackson is still able to create a film that not only doesn't feel too long, but actually leaves you wanting more. His character work, coupled with brilliant performances from all three leads (four, including Kong), embraces the audience and holds it tighter than Kong as he carries Ann - bounding from Skull Island onto the streets of New York and straight up the Empire State Building.
Jackson's able to do this for two reasons; the first reason is that he has a deep respect for his source material. A lot of recent adaptations (cough, Fantastic Four, cough) completely ignore their source material, and as a result they don't enjoy as much success as they probably could. Jackson, on the other hand, was brilliant and respectful enough to set his Kong in the same 1930s time period and to actually revisit the old classic with an epic proficiency few directors possess today. He also possesses a second trait which leads to his success: a unified vision. Make no mistake, Jackson's King Kong is by no means a cheap marketing ploy to take an old classic and rehash it to turn a buck or two (anyone remember the 1970s Kong with Jeff Bridges? Blech!). On the contrary, Jackson's Kong is the result of a long-time childhood appreciation of and infatuation with the original, one that he's been trying to make since before he began his Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Jackson's been thinking about how to make this movie since he was roughly 12 years old, and the payoff is definitely worthwhile.
Believe me, folks, go see this movie, but before you do, prepare your socks for getting thoroughly knocked off.